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Crime Rates: Are They Higher, Lower—or Both?
According to the Council on Criminal Justice, crime rates significantly dropped YoY in the first half of 2023 but remain elevated compared to 2019, just before the pandemic. From a longer-term perspective, however, today’s crime rates remain dramatically lower than they were in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Every summer, the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) releases its mid-year report on crime in America. Using police department databases from 37 cities, they aggregate weekly crime rates for ten offenses from January to June. And by using YoY statistical confidence intervals, they can measure how crime rates have changed in recent years.
Topline results: Most violent and property crimes decreased from the same period in 2022. This continues the slight decline recorded last year. (See “Violent Crime Dips in 2022, But Still Much Higher than Pre-Pandemic.”) So far, however, rates still remain higher than they were immediately prior to the pandemic.
Crime has gotten outsized attention in recent years after violent crime rates jumped higher in 2020 following decades of gradual decline. In particular, the murder rate rose sharply. (See “Homicides Spiked in 2020” and “America’s Rising Crime Rate.”) While this increase is obviously troubling, it comes nowhere near returning us to the terrifying crime rates that prevailed thirty years ago—when New Jack City was playing at the box office and three-strikes laws were being enacted by panicky state legislatures.
So much for the preamble. Let’s dive into the most recent figures.
The CCJ update
In the first half of 2023, most violent crimes recorded a YoY decline: aggravated assault -2.5%, robbery -3.6%, gun assault -5.6%, and homicides -9.4%. The same pattern mostly holds for property crimes: residential burglary -3.8%, larceny -4.1%, and nonresidential burglary -5.0%. The most notable outlier was a sizeable increase in motor vehicle theft (at +33.5%)—a trend pushed upward at least in part by the (Tik-Tok inspired) copycat fad of hotwiring Kias and Hyundais.
Most violent crimes are still above pre-pandemic levels. Compared to the first half of 2019, aggravated assaults are up +8%, homicides +24%, and gun assaults +39%. Property crimes are more mixed. Compared to the first half of 2019, larcenies are down -7%, and residential burglaries -26%. Conversely, nonresidential burglaries are up +5.1%, and (again, the outlier) motor vehicle thefts +104.3%.
Nevertheless, by the time we see data for the last six months of this year, we may see crime rates for the full year of 2023 return to 2019 levels. Just look at the trend in homicides. Winter 2023 recorded significantly more murders than winter 2019 (roughly 1.25 per 100K vs. 0.75). But so far, the 2023 monthly murder rate has peaked earlier and at a lower level than in 2019 (roughly 1.6 per 100K in April 2023 vs. 1.75 in July 2019). If homicides continue to decline through the summer, 2023 may be similar to pre-pandemic trends.
Why are crime rates falling? It could be that social and economic stressors from pandemic lockdowns have eased. Social services are certainly more accessible, and the jobs market for unskilled labor is white-hot. Another theory is that crime is cyclical: When crime rates rise, local institutions and individuals take more preventive action, and rates subsequently fall. While police forces remain understaffed, many crime prevention nonprofits have expanded.
Putting these numbers in context
Depending on one’s perspective, the latest figures can be spun both positively and negatively. If your time frame is this year over last year, most forms of crime are declining and continue to trend downwards. That’s the good news. If your time frame is this year over the pre-pandemic year of 2019, most violent crimes remain elevated. That’s the bad news. This has been a major talking point for Republicans, who hammered Democrats for being soft on crime in the months leading up to last year’s midterms.
If, on the other hand, your time frame is much longer—let’s say, this year over two, three, or four decades ago, then the news is actually very good indeed. Though certain types of crime remain more common today than they were pre-pandemic, they are all much lower than they were during the 1980s and early 1990s. As we have often highlighted (see “Millennials Drive the Secular Decline in Crime Rates”), data as reported to the FBI by police and as reported in annual federal surveys both indicate that violent and property crime have fallen dramatically over the past 30 years. The graph below illustrates crime trends since the 1990s as reported by the FBI.
The gold standard for measuring violent crime rates is the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), carried out yearly since 1973 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. It surveys the members of American households on whether they’ve been victims of rape or sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, or simple assault. Victimization rates are usually deemed a superior data source over arrest or conviction rates because many crimes go unreported. The NCVS data over time show the same sharp downward trajectory. (The lower line in the graph below excludes simple assault to illustrate what’s happened to more serious violent crimes.)
Even in 2021, at the peak of the pandemic crime binge, NCVS doesn’t show much of a blip. At 1.0%, it’s not only way below the 1990s, it’s also below most years in the 2000s and 2010s. Lest you think this is due to some aberrant quirk in how NCVS digests its responses, we see much the same pattern in Gallup’s victimization survey. Gallup’s survey only goes back to 2000, and it includes a wider variety of offenses (such as property crimes). Still, take a look at its individual and household levels for 2021. They were, as in the NCVS survey, lower than in most of the 2000s and 2010s.
The only violent crime that neither the NCVS nor Gallup tracks is murder, since dead victims obviously can’t report their own victimization. The most complete historical data on homicides come from the CDC’s National Vital Statistics System, which records homicides based on death certificates and whose most recent update was for 2021. As shown in the chart below, homicides have seen a larger increase compared to other violent crimes since the pandemic began. But even with this uptick, the 2021 rate of 7.8 homicides per 100K people was -22% below the rate in 1991 (10.0 per 100K) and -24% the rate in 1980 (10.2 per 100K).
The FBI also keeps national data on homicides. However, it changed its reporting system for local police departments in 2021, and thus its latest data are not directly comparable to data from earlier years. It is also incomplete because many police departments in large cities—including NYC and Los Angeles—have not yet submitted data under the new system.
Public beliefs about crime are increasingly polarized
So much for the measurable data. What do Americans actually believe about whether crime is higher or lower? The best survey numbers here, provided over the years by Gallup, come with this one caveat. They measure whether people think there is more or less crime this year than last year—in other words, they only measure perceptions of short-term change.
Unquestionably, this Gallup survey shows that Americans believed that crime got worse in 2021 and 2022 compared to the year before. Gallup notes that 56% of Americans who said that “crime in your area” increased in 2022 is the highest share it has ever recorded. (The 26% who said the same thing in 2001 was the lowest.)
There may objective reasons for this jump. Because the victimization jump during the pandemic disproportionately featured homicides and aggravated assaults (rather than property crimes), it may be more likely to cause alarm. Also, because the jump in total victimization rates occurred almost exclusively in urban areas (according to Gallup, victimization rates in towns and rural areas actually declined in 2020 and 2021), it may have persuaded a greater share of Americans to believe crime was rising “in their area.”
There may be something else going on as well: Americans are growing increasingly partisan in how they view trends in crime.
As long as Gallup has been measuring this subjective barometer, Americans have been happier about crime “in their area” when a president of their own party has occupied the White House—and less happy when not. (The same happens when you ask people how well they think the economy is doing.)
In recent years, though, this polarization has amped up to a whole new level. Republicans who, during the Trump presidency, were less likely than Democrats to perceive rising crime, jumped stratospherically more negative in 2021 and 2022—years which, of course, coincided with Biden’s presidency. Democrats, meanwhile, were happier about crime in 2022 than in 2019. Making this partisan split even more outlandish is that Republicans are relatively more likely to live in rural areas, while, by everyone’s estimation, the pandemic crime surge was mostly an urban phenomenon. Urban Trump voters must have been seeing Mad Max outside their windows. And urban Biden voters must have been seeing the Peaceable Kingdom.
You might wonder: Is there any survey measure that is less open to subjective (and partisan) perception than the “rise” or “fall” over last year question? Well, there is another question that Gallup has been asking ever since 1965: “Is there any area near where you live—that is, within a mile—where you would be afraid to walk alone at night?” Here, Americans aren’t being asked to opine about year-over-year trends. They are being asked about fear, a less mutable standard.
Even fear, to be sure, is open to plenty of partisan sway. There are plenty of media headlines out there that promote the perception of general disorder and lawlessness—rampant shoplifting, endless mass shootings, an out-of-control migrant crisis. Fear will come more easily to Republicans who obsess over these headlines, more so than to Democrats who willfully disregard them.
Still, the picture that emerges from the answers to this question over time are a bit closer to the long-term trends we saw in the victimization surveys. In 2021, 37% answered yes, there is an area near me where I’m afraid to walk at night. That’s higher than in several recent years (29% in 2020, for example, or 30% in 2017). But it’s also a lot less than it was for a solid twenty-five years of not-so-distant American history, extending from the early 1970s to the late 1990s—from Richard Nixon’s second term as President through Bill Clinton’s first term.
Today, more than ever, partisanship will always encourage the out-party to catastrophize and the in-party to deny anything is wrong. But let us not forget: Partisan perception is one thing, social reality another.
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